WHAT IS THE H-2B PROGRAM?
* It allows employers to bring foreign workers temporarily to the United States and do nonagricultural jobs on a one-time, seasonal or intermittent basis.
* An employer must show there are not sufficient U.S. workers to do the temporary job and that the employment of the foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers doing similar jobs.
* The U.S. Department of Labor processes all H-2B applications on a first-in, first-out basis.
* Congress sets a limit of 66,000 new H-2B visas in a fiscal year.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor
CHANGES TO H-2B PROGRAM
* Starting in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor will require employers who use the program to pay U.S. and guest workers the highest rate of the federal, state or local minimum wage.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor
TUILCANABAJ, Guatemala — Lisandro Braulio was 16 when he made what he calls one of the worst mistakes of his life.
His father, Domingo Braulio, had told him to wait until he turned 18 to come to the United States as a guest worker, just like his father had done, but he ignored the advice and crossed into America illegally.
He went home to Guatemala in 2007 and later returned to the United States under the guest worker program known as H-2B, just like his father. This year was going to be Lisandro Braulio’s fourth time in Chattanooga under the program, but his past reached up and grabbed him.
Border protection agents in the Atlanta airport denied his visa and sent him back to Guatemala because they discovered he’d entered the country illegally six years ago. Now the 22-year-old is back in Guatemala and without a job to support his wife, Romelia Sánchez, and their 18-month-old son, Eliezer.
“I felt pain in my heart because I was already over there [in the United States],” he said from outside his parents’ home in the Guatemalan village of Tuilcanabaj in the state of Quetzaltenango.
Several siblings and nephews of the Braulio family have come to the United States since 2001 under the H-2B program to work for Chattanooga’s Dawson Lawn Service.
For those who come, it’s an opportunity to work and send money back home without fear of deportation. Employers say the program allows them to hire workers they can’t otherwise find.
The Braulios said each year they worked in Chattanooga, they were able to save about $9,000, an amount that would take about seven years to earn on a Guatemalan salary of less than $5 a day.
Lisandro Braulio wanted to work for two or three more years in Chattanooga, buy a car and a house in Guatemala and start a business there with his father and uncles.
He borrowed $1,300 for his plane ticket from Guatemala to Atlanta and now he’s not sure how he is going to pay it back.
Lisandro Braulio’s uncle, 33-year-old Santiago Braulio, also was denied a guest worker visa this year. Both previously had come to the United States illegally and lied about that in their application for the visa, making them ineligible. But both men had been approved in the past, and both came to Chattanooga and worked for the lawn care company.
A U.S. State Department official said the government can deny a visa for a number of reasons.
“The most common reason we deny visas is when an applicant fails to convince a consular officer he or she is going to return to their home country of residence after a short stay in the United States,” the official said.
Sometimes people like the Braulios may be approved because the government considers an application only with the information it has on hand. “Most likely, in cases where there was an offense committed before the visa application ... we didn’t have that information at the time of the application,” the official said.
Walter Dawson, the Braulios’ Chattanooga employer, has used the guest worker program for 10 years. He usually has a crew of about 14 workers, the majority of whom are guest workers, he said.
The Braulios were two of his best employees, he said.
“[Their situation] is an obvious indication that someone who was here illegally wants to be here legally and went home to come back here legally, went through all that effort and then gets turned down,” he said. “It doesn’t promote legal immigration.”
Dawson said he turned to the H-2B program because he was unable to find quality local workers. Some didn’t like his nonsmoking rule; some failed a drug test. Others were hired but only showed up for a few days before quitting, he said.
But Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, an immigration-reduction organization, said with such high unemployment rates nationwide, he finds it hard to believe employers can’t find American workers.
“What’s happened — landscaping is a good example — is that lots of landscapers over the last decade have gotten very used to the foreign labor streams, both legal and illegal,” he said. “They’ve lost their knowledge on recruiting American workers.”
In Beck’s view, if employers paid more and got better at recruiting, American teenagers and college students would start doing those jobs again. And if they still can’t find an American workforce, employers should rethink the business they are in, he said.
“If you cannot attract American workers, then I think you can probably say the job [except for agriculture] isn’t probably worth doing,” Beck said.
Beck’s organization also advocates for the government to reduce by 75 percent the number of immigrants coming here legally.
“The only immigrants coming into the country should be spouses, minor children, special-needs refugees and [those] with world-class skills,” he said. “It makes no sense, with the current unemployment, to bring in any foreign workers at this time.”
Guest worker programs started in 1942 in the United States. The H-2A allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for agricultural jobs, while the H-2B is for nonagricultural seasonal jobs. For both, employers have to prove they cannot find local workers.
The number of H-2B petitions filed by employers increased from 2000 to 2007; however, that began to change in 2008 — the beginning of the recession — and numbers have now dropped to levels seen 10 years ago.
In another wrinkle, the U.S. government this year increased the wage employers must pay guest workers.
In 2012, Dawson must pay his landscape laborers $12.33 an hour, up from his $7.75 starting wage this year, he said. The average wage of his employees is about $10.
“It would mean a $5 wage increase; I don’t think I would be able to do that,” he said, especially when most of his competitors wouldn’t have to pay that $12 an hour because it only applies to those using the program.
“[The H-2B program has been] a constant frustration, a constant uncertainty, but it has provided me with a quality legal employee that I have not been able to find locally,” Dawson said.
Back in Guatemala, both of the Braulios now say it was wrong for them to lie.
“The Bible says if you do something behind someone’s back, it will come to light. It’s not good to lie,” Santiago Braulio, 33, said from his potato field. “I knew it was going to happen sooner or later.”
Inside his concrete home, built with Chattanooga-earned money, he keeps a U.S. flag and a wall full of pictures from his days working in Florida and Chattanooga.
For the Braulios, staying in Guatemala means they must work in the fields and only make a couple of dollars a day. They won’t be able to buy their families new shoes this year and must get used to life with no cable, less meat and fewer cell phone calls.
Santiago Braulio said he would like to return to the United States some day, but not illegally.
“What would [the U.S. government] think of me? That I’m worse than a kid, that I don’t understand,” he said.
Besides, just thinking of the journey that brought him illegally to Florida in 1998 is a good deterrent.
He was one of 90 people crammed into a tank trailer designed to carry gasoline. The immigrants straddled wood benches as if they were riding horses, he said.
The uncomfortable trip lasted 20 hours from the Guatemala border through Mexico. It was 20 hours of no bathroom breaks, no talking, no eating and no leaning against the tank.
And that was followed by a 12-hour walk across the desert to get into the United States.
The Braulios had plans of starting a business selling calling cards and tools in Guatemala. Now those plans must be postponed, possibly abandoned, Santiago Braulio said.
“We’ll have to better ourselves here,” he said. “We’ll keep fighting.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...